MMA puts hold on new building

Posted Feb. 21, 2011, at 9:20 p.m.

CASTINE, Maine — Maine Maritime Academy has backed away from planned construction of a new engineering building in order to re-evaluate both the scope and the cost of the project.

That decision came earlier this month in the wake of concerns by trustees about the high price tag on the project — an estimated $13 million — and the college’s ability to raise the needed funds.

The development of a new engineering building has been in the planning stages for about four years, but in recent months, board members have questioned the costs involved in the building, as well as the scope of what was to be included in the project.

Trustee Robert Somerville at a board finance committee meeting earlier this month pointed out that the initial planning for the building, which is the major component in a wider campus improvement plan, was done when the economic climate was very different.“We’re trying to execute a plan that was developed when conditions were entirely different than they are today,” Somerville said.

Somerville and other trustees also raised concerns about the college’s ability to raise the funds for the project, which was estimated at $13 million.

Based on that discussion, the board of trustees unanimously voted to halt further development of the project until a board committee can set new financial and program benchmarks. The board did not set a deadline for those new recommendations. Fundraising will be a key element in that reassessment of the project.

Fundraising issues also were the focus of a recent report to MMA from Demont Associates of Portland that assessed the college’s ability to “dramatically” increase private support for the college, not only for capital projects but other operations.

Although the college has achieved some philanthropic success with targeted donations, its ability to take the college to “the next level” is hampered by a “weak and unprepared” board of trustees in terms of fundraising and a limited culture of philanthropy at the college, according to consultant Robert Demont. That is due, in part, he said, to the nature of board appointments, which are political and made by the governor. Such appointments are not made with fundraising in mind and leave the trustees without the capability to take MMA to that “next level,” he said.

Demont recommended the formation of an ad hoc committee to work toward developing more board influence in appointments to the trustees.

Although he included specific targets for increased private support and other organizational recommendations, the main focus of his recommendations was to increase the involvement of the board, the president, staff and volunteers in actively recruiting new major donors.

“People give to people,” Demont said, noting that personal contact before and after a donation is made is a key to cultivating financial support for the college.

He specifically recommended that MMA President William Brennan spend more time in face-to-face meetings with potential donors. The board should allocate 20 percent of Brennan’s time for “friends and fundraising” this year and increase that amount to 40 percent in 2012-13.

Brennan said that recommendation falls in line with his views of his role as president.

“That is the role of a college president these days,” Brennan said. “A college president is going to spend a good deal of time on philanthropic duties.”

Although he already has been involved in those face-to-face meetings with potential donors, Brennan said a strong effort on philanthropy wasn’t practical during his first year as president. As time goes on, he said, he expects to be doing more of that.

Demont also suggested that the college consider establishing a foundation board for MMA that would focus solely on raising funds for the college.

That suggestion bears consideration, according to Victoria Larson, chair of the board of trustees. A foundation geared toward raising funds and whose leadership has access to and influence with potential major donors could be beneficial to the college, she said.

“That’s probably something we should look at,” Larson said.

The board has not yet discussed the report from Demont. Its next regular meeting likely will be in May, before graduation.

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